Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
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When learning rule-based categories, sufficient cognitive resources are needed to test hypotheses, maintain the currently active rule in working memory, update rules after feedback, and to select a new rule if necessary. Prior research has demonstrated that conjunctive rules are more complex than unidimensional rules and place greater demands on executive functions like working memory. In our study, event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded while participants performed a conjunctive rule-based category learning task with trial-by-trial feedback. In line with prior research, correct categorization responses resulted in a larger stimulus-locked late positive complex compared to incorrect responses, possibly indexing the updating of rule information in memory. Incorrect trials elicited a pronounced feedback-locked P300 elicited which suggested a disconnect between perception, and the rule-based strategy. We also examined the differential processing of stimuli that were able to be correctly classified by the suboptimal single-dimensional rule (“easy” stimuli) versus those that could only be correctly classified by the optimal, conjunctive rule (“difficult” stimuli). Among strong learners, a larger, late positive slow wave emerged for difficult compared with easy stimuli, suggesting differential processing of category items even though strong learners performed well on the conjunctive category set. Overall, the findings suggest that ERP combined with computational modelling can be used to better understand the cognitive processes involved in rule-based category learning.